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Rockville Centre community rallies in a time of crisis

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South Hempstead resident Michelle James Wettstein is stressed. As a small business owner, she has seen a steep decline in revenue during what should be her busiest season. As a night-shift worker at LaGuardia Airport, she worries about her health. As a mother with twins who both suffer from chronic lung disease, she fears for their lives.

Rather than dwelling on all the negatives, however, Wettstein is focusing on doing something positive for the community.

“Every time I go to work, I feel impending doom, but I thought, this must be a million times worse for health care workers,” Wettstein said. “And I thought of my friends who rely solely on income from their small business, and wanted to help.”

On March 18, Wettstein started a Facebook group, Support for Local Businesses & Frontline Workers, which had more than 700 members as of press time on Tuesday. Group members collect monetary donations, and then purchase food from local businesses to deliver to the staff at local hospitals. Initially, Wettstein said, she expected the group to have about 10 members, who might simply order pizza and pound cake. But the group immediately started to grow as word got out.

“This took off and became way bigger than I ever expected,” Wettstein said.

A lifelong Rockville Centre resident, Wettstein knows many business owners, and first reached out to Polka Dot Pound Cake, sending food to Mount Sinai South Nassau. Soon, more people sent in donations and requests, and with the help of Cindy Mata Gross, the group’s site administrator, they are now organizing food deliveries multiple times a day.

Mata Gross, who also lives in Rockville Centre, said she, too, was passionate about supporting small businesses. When she heard, through another local Facebook group, what Wettstein wanted to do, she immediately jumped on board.

“I have a ton of family that works at Mercy and Mount Sinai South Nassau,” Mata Gross said, “and to deliver food, it helps to know people.”

She helps coordinate the recipients and organize the food pickup and deliveries, and helps keep the site updated. “We want to buy as many meals as we can from local businesses,” Mata Gross said, “and in turn, support the front-line workers.”

The effort, she explained, extends to all essential workers, including employees of urgent-care facilities, police and fire departments, pharmacies, grocery stores and gas stations.

Within days of the group’s creation, there were delivery requests from outside the village. But the point, Mata Gross said, is to keep it local. Neighboring towns should reach out to their local businesses and create efforts to support their nursing homes, pharmacies and grocery stores, she said.

Though the past few days have been busy, Mata Gross, an Asian-American, said she appreciates having a good cause to devote her energy to. “This has been, in a time when ugly things are happening, a welcome distraction,” she said. “We want to help spread the love to all.”

The businesses involved have been appreciative of the large orders. Zohra Hamid, the owner of Zora’s Halal Grill, which opened last September, said the family-owned business had been hit hard by the crisis. “My father and I were debating whether to keep the restaurant open when we got the order from Michelle,” Hamid said. “We’re really grateful for what this group is doing.”

So far, Hamid has been able to keep her staff of three employed, even though business is slow. “Our employees depend on us for rent,” she said. “It’s been tough. We’re just hoping it will get easier and this won’t trail on too long.”

Corinne Lomuto’s business, Cori’s Kitchen, has also been hurt during a usually busy season. She sells the bulk of her baked goods at delis and farmers markets. Her business “took a hit,” she said, without that option.

“Obviously, small businesses work on small margins … they don’t have deep pockets,” Lomuto said. “This situation is very difficult for stores to navigate — they don’t know how much to order because they don’t know how much business they’ll have.”

She said she saw the Support for Local Businesses group on Facebook and was happy to contribute. So far, the group has placed several orders with her, and she donates a portion of her proceeds to the group.

 “I think the idea to start this, to show thanks for those on the front lines and support small businesses at the same time, was brilliant,” Lomuto said, adding that she’s thankful to live in Rockville Centre. “We do a wonderful job of supporting one another. I’m proud to be a member of a community that takes care of each other.”

The local focus is extremely important to Wettstein, who said she doesn’t want to see businesses go under. “We don’t want to be a burden on the business,” she said. “We’re not asking for a discount. We tell them how much we have, and they tell us what they can do.”

The group intends to provide food for every floor of the local hospitals — Mount Sinai South Nassau, Mercy Medical Center, Winthrop and Franklin General — at some point, and is aiming to support as many local restaurants as possible. Early in the week, Wettstein said members were trying to figure out how to support other businesses in addition to food service. If enough money comes in, they can buy gift cards from local businesses and create gift baskets for workers on the front lines. She said she pushed hard on Sunday to include nonessential businesses ahead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandated closure. One purchase included flower bouquets from Art Flower, which were delivered along with food.

Wettstein said she encouraged more donations and requests, but asked for patience if messages aren’t answered right away. “This is new territory, and the plan is to get to everyone,” she said. “We want our town to be the same when we get over this. We don’t want to lose our businesses.”